Why I Cook — In China

32 Comments
Distractions

I have a confession to make. For the first four and a half years I lived in China, I did almost no cooking. Sure, I owned all the necessary equipment- I made sure of that. I wanted people to think I cooked, but didn’t really want to actually do it.  Going out to eat seemed so much easier. After all, it was cheap, tasty, and sociable. As a single man, the process of buying ingredients, preparing a meal, and eating it in solitude seemed unrewarding. Plus, then I’d have to wash the dishes. Who wants to spend their evenings doing that?

I suppose had I arrived in China a little later in life, I’d have known how to cook. Over the years the friends with whom I used to scarf burritos and pizzas during our university days gradually learned how to prepare their own meals. They had little choice; in the West, young people with meager salaries simply cannot afford to eat in restaurants all the time.

But in China, eating in restaurants is one of life’s great pleasures.  From the beginning I embraced the wonderful Chinese concept of 热闹: hot and noisy. I’d gather a group of friends, order way too much food, and enjoy a raucous meal for a mere fraction of the amount it would cost back at home. And when you’re done, you’re done. No dishes!

I admit this is a strange way to begin an essay about why I now like to cook. I think, however, that my experience described above might resonate with some of you who, like me, enjoyed a mid-20s period of adolescence as laowai in China.

As you might have guessed, I now cook. I cook even though it probably doesn’t save me a lot of money, even though my repertoire of dishes isn’t terribly impressive, even though I could certainly spend my free time doing other things I like. I cook even though I live in a neighborhood where there are literally dozens of cheap and cheerful dining options.

So in homage to a neat little essay I stumbled upon this morning, I now present why I cook:

  • I cook because I derive an almost primeval pleasure in controlling fire
  • I cook because I like to know exactly what I’m eating- a lifetime of eating processed foods, America’s unfortunate contribution to global cuisine, has instilled me with a desire to eat simple, natural foods.
  • I cook because as I approach 30, being able to provide for myself- and perhaps someday for others- has become a greater priority.
  • I cook because sometimes I can cook for others, and seeing their enjoyment of my culinary creation is a real pleasure
  • I cook because I’m not one of those people who can just eat anything and not gain weight. To the contrary, if I don’t watch what I eat I can fatten up real fast.
  • I cook because I was raised by two good cooks and feel that the ability to do so is part of my lineage.
  • I cook because I love food. And wine.
  • I cook because I even like doing the dishes now. Funny, huh?

What about you? Why do you (or don’t you) cook? Perhaps a lost-laowai recipe thread might be the offing, no?

photo by massdistraction.

Talk on Why I Cook — In China


32 Comments
  1. I occasionally cook in China, in fact I just received a new electric oven yesterday because my old one didn’t have temperature control and my cakes ended up getting burnt. Apart from the aforementioned cakes, I really only cook western food because it’s much cheaper to make it myself and more satisfying, and I get to learn to make some new dishes. It’s not always easy (or cheap) getting the ingredients though…

  2. Nice post, Matt.

    I agree with many of your reasons to cook but I’ll add a few of my own:

    * I cook because I enjoy my own leftovers. Chinese leftovers, not so much.
    * I cook because I enjoy being creative, I ask myself “Can I do this?” and then I try.
    * I cook because I miss home.

    Having a large toaster oven or an apartment with a *real* oven becomes a must for an expat after awhile. A lot of us will turn to a toaster oven to make pizza but I find real value in cooking potatoes and roasting meat.

  3. Profile photo of

    Great post Matt.

    I’ve found I go in phases with cooking. I’ve always cooked, but when I first moved to China the novelty of eating out (or nazou’ing it) was too much to resist. I think I started getting back to cooking because I wanted to prepare more familiar food.

    Fortunately now that familiar food includes a healthy variety of Chinese dishes as well, and I’m slowly gaining the skills to prepare them properly.

    Lately my cooking desires are definitely geared towards a new little half-laowai that’s going to be gracing my household in a couple of months. Though it will be a solid amount of time before family dinners are a reality, I want to get a start on figuring out the staples (anyone got a good meatloaf recipe? ;-))

    @Matthew S: I agree, a large toaster oven or proper oven is essential. I found it expands the amount you can prepare considerably, and makes it more likely that you’ll do cooking at home. Fried/boiled/steamed might be good for dumplings, but roasted veggies and baked potatoes are awesome.

  4. This is very sensible. Cooking avoids you the grease, dirt and the dreaded unknowns that you will ingest daily while eating out. Eating out in the west hurts your wallet whereas eating out in China hurts your life’s longevity. When taking into account thethings which are killing you that you can not control, it just makes sense to try to make adjustments to the things that you can control.

    • Profile photo of

      The only caveat I would add to this though ChinaMack is that you’re not eating entirely risk free cooking at home. A reputable restaurant is as likely to buy quality ingredients as a reputable supermarket. A greasy chopstick will have the approximate quality of wares as a dirty un-refrigerated fly-infested wet market. Though it’s not a hard and fast rule, largely, you get what you pay for.

      • True, but dont forget the period of time between when the food leaves the fryer and enters your mouth. All the coughs, sneezes, fingers, creatures and spills that tarnish it before it touches down on the table in front of you. ;)
        Also I think if you spend a length of time in a particular neighborhood you tend to find, through trial and error and/or luck, places that sell perfectly esculant produce and acceptably edible meats.
        Regarding eating out though, there are definitely some gems out there and I personally probably eat out as often as the next laowai.

    • Profile photo of Matt

      I’m not at all convinced that eating in restaurants in China represents a greater health risk than doing so anywhere else. At simple country fry-up joints in Yunnan you usually can inspect the meat and vegetables before they’re cooked and even in some cases watch the cook go about his work.

      • Well I am completely convinced that eating out is a much greater health risk than cooking for yourself. The amount of grease alone is enough of a deterrent for me. Also, the conditions of restaurants and their kitchens are, more often than not, horrifying. Not only that but, with all due respect, Chinese people are hardly the most hygienic of people on the planet. Couple all this with the crazy schemes that go on here: ie. Fecal matter chou dou fu, cardboard baozi, reused disposable chopsticks, swill cooking oil… You are really kidding yourself if you think it is not more of a health risk.
        And as for inspecting the goods before they go into the fryer, lets not give the wrong impression to those who dont know any better… that may very well be the case in some fryup place in yunnan, but it certainly is not the standard practice of restaurants throughout greater China.

      • A second point on the Yunnan see the food before it is cooked practice. During a couple week trip there I was routinely invited to pick out the vegetables and meats from a fridge that would be used for the food. After picking some foods the chef would decide on dishes that suit what I picked and cook them. Very tasty.

  5. As someone who specifically chose to save money for my time in China by cooking meals in the US and have continued cooking here in China in order to make my RMB go even farther I have to disagree with the point that cooking here in China “probably doesn’t save me a lot of money.” Along with the excellent and more important points listed above, cooking your own food here is a great way to save money. As an example let’s present a very basic recipe for the humble gongbaojiding as provided by Fuchsia Dunlop. Along with prices that are, to the best of my knowledge, current in Beijing (any estimations are based on making bulk ingredients into recipe sized portions!)

    1 Chicken Breast — 3 RMB
    1 scallion stalk — 0.4 RMB
    Red Chilies, salt, hua jiao — 0.05 RMB (at most!)
    Garlic and Ginger — 0.1 RMB (again generous)
    huang jiu, soy sauce, vinegar — 0.05 RMB
    Peanuts — 0.1 RMB
    oil — 0.01 RMB
    Rice — 0.17 (cooked leaving a lot leftover for chaofan)

    So grand total for this meal: 3.88 RMB

    Now take what this dish would cost at a restaurant. Take out here in Beijing is at least 10 RMB maybe more and in a restaurant at least 15 RMB. Now again is this insane nitpicking. But add this savings up just three nights a week over an entire year and you save on the low assumption at least 954 RMB. Plus you get all of the excellent benefits listed above. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me!

    • Profile photo of Matt

      Wow- you’ve certainly given this a lot of thought! I should have clarified that I seldom make classic Chinese dishes at home, as I normally defer to the locals who know how to do it better! Typically I cook more Western-oriented foods which necessitates purchasing more expensive ingredients like cream, cheese, bread, pasta, etc.

    • you’re right–it is a great deal cheaper in conversion. however, remember that the salaries in China are generally a great deal lower than in the west. I believe the conversion rate right now is close to 7 RMB/$1 US. so, yes, that meal comes out to around 50 cents, but everything really evens out. as for being cheaper than eating in restaurants, that really takes practice. it is quite easy to actually spend more when cooking at home. I can go to a sichuan place down the street and get some daizou gongpao jiding and moguqingcai for 10yuan, and it’s quite good.
      my biggest problem when I first arrived in China was finding a good variety of fresh vegetables. I spent about 8 years in the US as an ovo-lacto vegetarian (eggs and dairy are okay) and had a host of choices for finding vegetables, whether it was the supermarket, farmer’s market, organic market, etc. here, the vegetables in the supermarket are generally below standard, and there isn’t a good variety (I need more than just some bocai to get me through the week). after some time here, however, you can find great places to get superfresh veggies. haggling over a few mao is more than just fun, it’s expected. I firmly believe that, as a westerner, there is the opportunity to try either lifestyle–eating out for every meal or cooking everything.

  6. Seems like I’m on the save wavelength/trajectory as you Matt. I do a pretty damn fine 土豆肉丝, 酸辣白菜 and 西红柿炒鸡蛋 – the easiest ones I know. Check out this bilingual site for some many Chinese (and many other) recipes

    http://schneiderchen.de/_Chinese.html

    Any one got a recipe for 鱼香肉丝? or maybe 回锅肉?

    • Profile photo of

      I made, to my mouth at least, a killer plate of 回锅肉 for CNYE. It’s one of my fav. dishes, and I love that I can cook it at home. It’s surprisingly easy. Trick is to cut the pork thin and against the grain, and to make sure you have the proper bean paste. Everything else is just ‘to taste’ :-)

  7. Nice post Matt. I like cooking in China; it was my way of bonding at first, with students coming round to make dumplings from scratch, and then Chinese cooking nights with girlfriends. Everyone’s (make that Chinese people) always impressed I can 包饺子!

    I am now able to throw together quite a lot of Chinese(ish) dishes, 土豆丝 being one of my simple favourites (throw in dry red chili & white vinegar for 酸辣,or some green chili, or thin strips of pork too, so many variations!) or my version of that staple tomatoes and eggs (minus the tomato, plus cucumber) 黄瓜炒鸡蛋. I also love tofu, and make a simple, yummy tofu in blackbean sauce. 花椒粉 (ground sichuan pepper, I think?) is one of my favourite ingredients… I have a stash of all sorts of stuff to liven up dishes. I find the single hardest thing is creating the “sauces” for things like 鱼香肉丝 and BJ staple 宫保鸡丁. Also got an awesome recipe for 排骨炖土豆 (pork ribs & potato).

    I love chopping all the veggies up, and the different colours, and smells of sauces and stuff. I also like knowing, roughly, what’s going into my dishes: no MSG for instance (even though I’m not super worried about that).

    More worrying is this kind of thing:
    http://english.people.com.cn/90001/90776/90882/6902771.html

    • Great post Matt! P.S. I want your panda pan lol

      Tam:

      Our laoshi here in Ohio had a similar bonding experience in her home. She had us over during Christmas break and we shopped together in a local Asian supermarket, then we made dumplings both with casings from scratch and the pre-made kind. We bonded over our (the students) poor folding skills and the curiosity of table manner differences between the cultures. It was a day I will forever cherish. I have since made her recipe and have gotten better at the pinching (although not great) and share the time and experience with my children.

  8. Thats reminds me, I saw an old working class lady going through bins the other day. She was picking out the plastic disposable food containers (from home-delivered food) and stacking them up….no prize for guessing how she planned on making some coin out of them. Ignorance is bliss.

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  10. I’ve always enjoyed cooking and I was eager to expand my horizons when I arrived in China 4 1/2 years ago. I’ve never been a particularly adventurous chef but I’ll try a new spice here, a new veggie there. And like Ryan, we’ve got a little halfling on the way and it really is a lot more economical to cook at home. Plus cleaning up in China is a breeze compared to the States…give me a no-stick wok to wash over a caked-on casserole pan any day.

    Added bonus: the ladies dig a Western dude who can cook Chinese food, and it impresses future-in-laws ;-P

  11. I love the freshness and affordability of the fruits and veggies here. I’ve always loved to cook, but back in the states the high prices of produce made it difficult to make healthy and/or delicious meals. Even though everything here is super seasonal, there still seems be a decent variety. Trips to my local market are one of my favorite things about China – it’s like a farmer’s market every day of the week!
    Like many young broke students I lived on ramen and Taco Bell’s 79 cent menu for longer than I’d care to admit, and while I still fiercely love Taco Bell (I know it’s gross but mm so good), I can’t stand instant noodles. It’s so nice to be able to cook and still save some money without having to starve/malnourish myself.

    The only kitchen complain I have here in China is that I miss having an oven to bake in (I haven’t invested in a toaster oven yet, maybe I should.) There’s nothing like homemade cookies!

  12. I started cooking and baking because I wanted to eat more healthfully, and I missed real bread. I was lucky enough to have a friend give me her oven when she left, so I can bake all sorts of stuff, including real, crusty European style breads. And it’s fun to play with the fruits and vegetables here that you can’t find in the US, and make Western food with fun local ingredients, like black sesame cookies and such. I wasn’t really interested in cooking when I lived in the States, but the wide (and inexpensive) variety of fresh produce here just seem to open so many more possibilities.

    • Profile photo of

      I like the idea of Chinese-Western fusion. It’s actually something my wife finds strange when I suggest a stir-fry, or something equally ubiquitous in cheap Western cooking with Asian-characteristics. Certainly used to adding Western ingredients into Asian dishes. Hadn’t much thought of combining Chinese produce into Western dishes, other than out of necessity.

      Great blog by the way!

  13. I have to say that I am still in the eating-out-for-every-meal-and-loving-it camp. Back in America I never ate out just to save money. My husband did most of the cooking. But here it is so damn cheap and easy to go out. (I teach in a uni in the boondocks so a meal out at a regular restaurant for 2 never costs us more than 20-25 yuan.) Eating out is much cheaper for us we learned during Spring Festival when we had to actually cook for ourselves because nothing was open.

    We don’t have much for cooking utensils either, just a hot pot and 2 pans so even to make a simple dish is difficult.

    I think my next kitchen investment might be a toaster oven so i can actually bake something every now and then. You guys are making em jealous with your talk to crusty bread and roasted potatoes!

  14. I love to cook at the table with my friends. Shabu shabu and sukiyaki at the table are great ways to eat fresh and easy. It’s fun for everyone and you can spend all your time with your guests.

  15. I happened upon this site while searching for “baking in china”. It is a wonderful site. Though I am not from the west, I was brought up in Singapore where we have everything from the east to the west and from the north to the south. A bit exaggerating here.
    In any case, while I was in Shanghai, I missed some foods greatly and only after about 6 years, decide to invest in an electric oven to bake my pizza, muffins, brownies etc. (6 years because some people discouraged me) It now became my source of enjoyment once in a while. My colleagues enjoyed them a lot and finished the food almost immediately. Though some ingredients are hard to find or rather expensive, their support and comments encouraged me to try out more recipes my recipes will grow more by and by.
    Great.

    • Profile photo of

      Hi Ruth, I agree that an electric oven is a great accessory to any China expat’s kitchen. I keep meaning to add a feature to Lost Laowai that allows users to submit recipes to share (with a heavy focus on things you can cook in a small electric oven or uncommon uses of a wok). Keep an eye out for that, would love to see some of your suggestions.

  16. I have lived in several countries over the past few years, and cooking is always a battle. I must admit that I was more of a Lean Cuisine lover back home, or eating anything that could be thrown together in seconds (raw veggies and dips) but in China, you do not get that luxury. I live in Xian, and it is by far the dirties place I had ever been to! People spit loogies all day long, and they let their babies potty right on the street, or even inside! I had the misfortune of getting mumps here, and I do not even know how! Anyway, I try to not eat the local food due to all the diseases as well as the high oil, msg, and pork content here in China. I also do not plan to become a diabetic from all of the rice and pasta being served, so that sort of limits what I can eat.
    As most of you know, Western food is CRAZY expensive here, and if you moved to China with a family-good luck! The Chinese “kitchens” are ill equipped for western diets. Your only option is to boil or fry, so if you have high cholesterol, then you only get to boil.

    Nonetheless, guess we will be headed back home-SOON!

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